- Hopkins’s Heart
“...heart’s blood spilt Out of heart’s anguish, high heart, all-hoping heart, Child-innocent, clean heart, of guile or guilt, But heart storm-tried, fire-purged, heaven chastened . . .”—Monk Gibbon, “The Poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins”1
Exchanging letters in 1879, Hopkins and his friend R. W. Dixon took issue with Tennyson’s poems for their lack of heart. Dixon complained about the “versification” of “Locksley Hall”: “It had the effect of being artificial & light: most unfit for intense passion, of which indeed there is nothing in it, but only a man making an unpleasant & rather ungentlemanly row.”2 Hopkins agreed:
not only Locksley Hall but Maud is an ungentlemanly row and Aylmer’s Field is an ungentlemanly row and the Princess is an ungentlemanly row. To be sure this gives him vogue, popularity, but not that sort of ascendancy Goethe had or even Burns, scoundrel as the first was, not to say the second; but then they spoke out the real human rakishness of their hearts and everybody recognised the really beating, though rascal, vein.(Correspondence, 1: 347)
The fervour of Hopkins’s response might feel surprising, but Dixon has touched a chord which reverberates to the very core of Hopkins’s art. Hopkins’s comments remember Hazlitt’s judgment that Burns “had a real heart of flesh and blood beating in his bosom”: of all Victorian poets, Hopkins most resound-ingly bears out Hazlitt’s assertion that “by a great poet, we mean one who gives...the utmost force to the passions of the heart.”3
There is no more vital image in poetry than the heart—and, one might say, none more susceptible to cliché. “The essence of all poetry,” said John Keble in his Oxford Lectures on Poetry (1844), “is to be found, not in high-wrought subtlety of thought, nor in pointed cleverness of phrase, but in the depths of the heart and the most sacred feelings of the men who write.”4 If [End Page 93] Victorian tastes had not quite arrived at T. S. Eliot’s visceral disdain for Sidney’s injunction to “look into thy heart, and write” (“that is not looking deep enough . . . One must look into the cerebral cortex, the nervous system, and the digestive tracts”),5 nineteenth-century writers were nonetheless alert to the dangers of speaking “vaguely and diffusely” of the heart, as John Beer puts it in his account of the heart’s importance to Wordsworth, and were increasingly responsive to its physiological as well as symbolic existence.6 The organ’s varied medical, poetic, and religious significance for the poets of the middle of the century has been fleshed out by Kirstie Blair in Victorian Poetry and the Culture of the Heart, and much of what I have to say extends her discussion of Victorian poetry’s “intense and oddly pathological concentration on the heart” to Hopkins.7 Hopkins’s poems return again and again to the heart: in doing so they activate a range of overlapping significances which will lend shape to what follows. The heart was a focus for Hopkins’s thinking about poetic rhythm and inspiration; it assumed devotional significance in the form of the Catholic symbol of the Sacred Heart; in some of his most affecting poems it serves as an object of interrogation and companionship as well as a source of expression. Yet if Hopkins’s concern with the heart shares in what Jason R. Rudy calls the “astonishing physicality” of Victorian poetry, the special intensity of that concern was crucial to Hopkins’s independence from his contemporaries, too.8 Hopkins’s poetry brings “high-wrought subtlety” to bear upon its expression of the heart’s “depths.” It stands apart for its ability to endow this most universal of images with individual character—to speak, as he felt Tennyson’s didn’t, from a “real human” heart.
The heart, for Hopkins, was the seat of character, and it was the job of style to make that character manifest. His and Dixon’s objections to the lack of “heart” in “Locksley Hall” are common enough, but they illuminate a matter crucial to...